Seven Hollows All In A Row
Inside a dark and cold office, in a high rise in the Queen City just across the Ohio from the Bluegrass State, two men gathered to talk business.
“Seven hollows all in a row. With simple access, one way in and out. Thousands of acres of virgin timber waiting for the picking. We can move in and clear cut, be out before anyone knows what hit ‘em,” said Jack Paul Bender, a big burly man with a long red beard and yellow suspenders. “What about witnesses? If someone spots the trucks, they might get suspicious, call the authorities,” said Dan Baker, around fifty, wearing a cheap white suit and bow tie.
“Hell,” Bender laughed. “The only road goes right by these two hick families that look like something right out of Ma and Paw Kettle.”
“What about all the lumber. How will we get it to market?”
“There’s a saw mill only a mile or so away, I have everything arranged with the proprietor.”
“I do hope you do Bender. Because if there is any screw up in this affair, our tails will be hung out to dry,” Baker said, as he got up and shook Bender’s hand.
“I count my life on it, Baker. I’ve done this before up in Canada, many times believe me. It’ll be well worth the risk.”
On the other side of the state, through fields of blue grass blades, past countless hills of virgin timber, across the ancient Overthrust and on a mining road in Harlan County, two cousins waited for something to happen. They were of the old -guard. The two-wheeled knights, riders of new age machines that spit smoke, dropped oil, and churned up earth. They lingered on the edge of change. Soon a new army of riders would appear in open chariots with four wheels and piloted by those not as hardened to the elements.
“Shish man. You hear that?” Said James, a dark-haired boy about sixteen. He stopped poking at the ground with a stick and looked up.
“Hear what?” Billy asked, as he continued flicking at rocks with his own piece of wood that he carved from a fallen oak limb.
“That roaring racket,” James said. “Don’t ya hear?”
“Maybe it’s just a jet.”
“Nope, that ain’t it,” James spit.
“Maybe it’s my old man and your mama playing dueling bed springs again,” Bill laughed. “Freaking funny. Something big is heading up here, dude.”
“I do hear it. I was just messing with your silly ass, man.”
“Then what the hell is it?” James yelled, as the noise grew louder. He went for a better look. A congregation of crows were suddenly spooked from a beech tree where they had held court, trying to convict and evict a wayward member of their noble nest. The anger in their cries seemed to signal that they were about to reach a verdict before they were rudely interrupted. Billy gazed up to admire the fleeing flock. James looked at the birds in disgust. His father had told him to shoot every crow he came across as if they were vagabonds of the clouded skies.
Bill also went to get a better view. At first they saw only dim colors, of black and yellow, fading in and out behind the green of the Appalachian foliage. Then, a Mack truck pulling a trailer with a big yellow bulldozer came into view. A brief period of silence was only broken by the last fleeing crow crying, “caw, caw,” as it struggled to catch up.
“Hot damn. Won’t you look at that beauty!” James jumped up and down.
“Why are they bringing that big thing up here? What they gonna do with it?” Billy asked. “Make us some more trails, I sure as hell hope.”
“Dang right,” Billy agreed.
“My old man said someday they’d be back up here to finish logging out every tree in this here holler. Clear cut it all till there was nothing, flat like a K-Mart parking lot.”
“They can’t take out every tree. Somebody will stop them,” said Billy.
“By dang they can’t. They did it over in Short Holler last week,” James said, kicking at the earth as the machines approached. “One day it was plum full of trees, the next nothing. Hey, I got an idea. Let’s hide.”
“What for?” Billy asked.
“Cause I don’t want them to see us.”
They ran and ducked under the thick rhododendron bushes that lined the side of the road. A black Coachwhip, six-foot long, scurried out of their way. As it found shelter, it curled up and thrashed its tail hard against the dirt in defiance of the intrusion by the boys and the machine making its way up the hill rattling the earth below. The noise was so loud that boys did not see the snake. All their attention was on the Mack truck as it slowed, gears grinding shifting down and black smoke puffing skyward from the exhaust pipe opposite the driver’s side. On that trailer was the prize that held their eyes; a John Deer Crawler.
“I want me one of them machines,” James said, big eyed and shouting into nothing.
“What would ya do with it?” Billy yelled back.
The dust rose, small pebbles trickled down. The truck and trailer passed by heading up to the hollow where the tall trees grow. The Coachwhip gave up the fight, and hurried back to a hidden lair to comfort her young.
“I’d build me a trail from clean here to Black Star and beyond. All the way to Middlesboro, even Tennessee,” James again shouted before the roar of the Mack faded away. Then, as a Jake Break drowned off in the distance, the smell of smoke and diesel hung in the late summer air, a lonesome Crow took flight over a fresh forest filled full of green and cawed out to no one.
“The only way a fella could get a hold one of them machines,” Billy said, “would be to pay a million dollars for it. How ya gonna do that? You guys bout as poor as we are.”
“I don’t know just yet,” James said as he sat back down and again started poking at the brown lonesome earth with a new, larger stick he had found. “But I’ll try to think of something.” A long silence hung over what the boys called the Milk Gap, even though there wasn’t any milk to be found and it was no gap. The only gap that existed was in the boys minds, in their feelings about nature, and trees. It was all they had to do that summer before they became men, lie in bed and dream, arise to ride. And now a new change was coming before them, in their own lives and in the land that they so admired and called their turf.
“I think I hear ‘em coming back down again.”Billy asked, breaking the silence. “We gonna hide again?”
“Naw, not me. I’m gonna head home. It’s about supper time. Soup bean night. I’ll see you tomorrow,” James said. He fetched his yellow Yamaha 250 out of the bushes, climbed aboard and coasted homeward down the hill to save gas and Mother Nature. Billy quickly followed before the Mack and the dozer returned.
Later that evening, after a red ball of flame had just seeped behind Pine Mountain and went west to light the plains and then the desert, James returned, sneaking away up past the Milk Gap without his cousin and best friend, to find that the Mack truck had gone and left the bulldozer behind.
“It’s Christmas in summertime,” he gleamed and approached the Crawler as if it were alive and at any moment would start up and drink him whole. It was seemed to him something that should not be touched. Scared almost. He peered into the Beast. The key was in the ignition.
“Hot dang. It’s my birthday too,” he shouted and danced in circles shaking his hands to the sky. An army of crows, resting on a strand of oaks, were awakened and in an instant flew west, as if trying to capture that red ball before it crossed the Rockies and became free. The sound of the escaping birds of justice startled James. He looked around. It was suddenly turning dark. Looking into the forest, all he saw was a green that quickly faded into black. He imagined he heard twigs breaking then branches snapping and finally the largest oaks in the distance fell hard to the ground echoing up the Seven Hollows. The ghosts and goblins in the hills and hollers of Harlan, all those ghosts he had heard told of since the days of his youth, seemed ready to spring out of the darkness and take him away, off to nowhere, as the yellow machine watched, and laughed. He ran to the Yamaha, his own little yellow earth-turning machine. A throttle was pushed too far. Precious petrol pumped into an engine much too fast. As the cries of the crows faded west, James pushed off his machine and coasted homeward while the ghosts of darkness and nevermore hovered about and stabbed at him, and tried to wrestle from him his dreams. When he made it home that night, he laid in a bed covered in blankets of comfort, and he slept a silent soundless sleep interrupted only by an unknown roar.
All night long James dreamed of the big yellow machine. Of the trails that it could blaze for him and Billy. They no longer had to ride into a dead end and turn around and go back and do it all over again. They could just ride on for hours that turned into days. It was as if a new world was opened up to them. Every hill, every mountain now held an endless trail. Trees that stopped their passage were removed, hilltops that blocked their way were made passable. Just before he awoke, the dream turned into a nightmare as the Dozer grew to a mammoth machine chasing him and in the process, it made all the mountains flat. He saw only a city of stone and iron. No trees with squirrels and birds, only a concrete surface pushed flat.
While the two boys slept late that warm summer morning, a team of men without conscience entered into a virgin forest and like mad greedy pirates on the open seas, they collected a bounty of oak, ash, and beech among other prizes. They tore up the earth with that yellow machine, making roads to nowhere on which the monster rode down dragging the wooded prizes attached by a steel cable to its rear creating huge ruts in the middle of the new roads. A distinct smell of fresh ground ancient dirt and fresh cut ageless trees mixed together with modern elements of oil and gasoline penetrated a once pristine mountain wilderness.
As lunchtime dawned and hungry bellies of an army of workers cried out for a much needed break, a leading voice of the wood pirates called out for more oak, more ash, for more. “I see some prized and juicy oaks on yonder hill that are begging out to me to be harvested. What’s that I see up there, an ash as big around as a Volkswagen. Get her down now! Crank that dozer back up, there’s a stack of maples that need to be brought back down here right now,” shouted a large man with a long red beard and gray flannel torn shirt and yellow suspenders, as muddy logging trucks lined up to carry down the bounty.
“Yes sir, Mr. Bender,” came their reply, as they kept on cutting.
Around 3pm on a Friday, as the Harlan County sun started to set over blackened hills, the crew gathered together their gear and headed down the mountain, leaving the bulldozer, key in ignition, behind for the weekend. As they passed, James mounted his muddy machine. With a black full faced helmet, he resembled a modern day knight. Bill was waiting for him where the forest began. They did not turn off their machines to speak, instead used a series of hand signals that said “let’s move on up the mountain.” As they ascended the mountain, the smell of the smoke of gas and oil and diesel still hung in the air. The road under their turning wheels still smarted from the heavy load of the logging trucks. They passed the Milk Gap. No change. On by the big hollow tree. Nothing different.
When they reached the crossroads, they took off their helmets, stared at what was before them. Then silence. A great silence erupted. A silence that lingered seemingly forever stood between the two friends and the now barren forest. The forest that they had played in, explored into, built cabins out of her wood, was now gone, leveled like a sandy desert.
“Where’d it all go?” Billy asked, in a somber voice.
“I...I. don’t know,” James said, as he stepped back away from it.
“Look! Why are all those crows setting on all those stumps?” Asked Billy.
“Cause it used to be their home. Now they have nowhere else to go,” James said, with a look that said all hope and tomorrow was gone.
Billy went back to his bike as if he no longer knew what to do with it. He started to climb aboard and cast off down the hill homeward, but waited on his friend. James turned to look at everything around him. That which was there, and that which now was no longer. He saw the bulldozer at the edge of the creek by the crossroads covered in dark Harlan County mud. He no longer wanted it. She was now to him like a cheating lover that he had once adored but at this moment hated more than a raped nun detested Satan. He hopped aboard his own machine, as he did, he inhaled the fresh turned dirt and sawdust from the missing trees. He turned for one last look and saw a thousand lonely crows on a thousand trees that were now no more. Some stared off into a Black Mountain nothingness. Some turned in empty circles, pecking at the stumps as if an acorn would suddenly materialize up from a concrete service. It made him sick to his stomach. He kicked hard at his little machine. When it finally started, he smiled in relief. A sound was unleashed that echoed like movements across an empty room. A thousand crows then took flight into nowhere.
Billy hunkered down to the sound of two thousand wings. He stayed behind and gathered strange thoughts around him. There lay before him the crossroad. To the left were three hollows of virgin timber, just as big as the one he stood in, to his right stretched three more, one of them, the next over, Short Holler, had already been leveled. This was their land, their turf, and no one came in and did it like this but them. He knew what he had to do.
“It won’t stop them,” he said aloud, “nothing will ever stop them, but it sure as hell will slow ‘em down. It’ll take months to fix this road. If I can only figure out how to get that thing started,” he stared at the John Deer Crawler. He stumbled through the fresh cut Harlan County mud to the yellow machine. To his surprise, the keys were still in the ignition. “Hot Damn!,” Bill’s shouts echoed through the barren forest. He climbed aboard and turned the key. Nothing. Not even the click clack of a dead battery. A flock of lonesome crows, hovering above with nowhere left to land to hold court, cried down and mocked at him. He remained oblivious to their existence and instead began to examine the Crawler. Why would they leave the keys? That don’t make sense. He thought for a moment. As he looked about the yellow machine, he saw on the right side of the driver’s seat a yellow box that had once been locked, but now wasn’t. When he opened the side panel, Bill saw a big grey switch pointed to “off,” beside it was clearly labeled “on.” He smiled as if he had just bagged the Homecoming Queen, the neighbor girl he had always wanted and made pregnant and chained forever to his side. He turned the switch to the on position, and turned the ignition key. It made a sound, but did not start. He looked down, saw the clutch and gas pedals, pressing one and holding the other, he tried again and contact. The yellow machine began to bellow and boil, and spilt out smoke of blue and grey. It shook the earth. It shook Bill.
He put the Crawler into gear, grinding and shedding metal bits in the process. It bucked and rocked, the blade still buried into the ground. He pushed levers until the blade rose and freed the machine. Bill felt as if renewed. Like he had just found some sort of purpose. Like he had to save something that no one else he ever knew or heard of would dare save. He put that yellow machine into gear and it roared. The ground beneath them trembled and shook as if it knew what may soon become of it.
The first thing he did was to completely cut away, down to solid rock, the turn off to the Point. Beyond it lay Long Hollow, with its vast forests of Oak, Maple, and Beech, the Mother Lode of lumber. It would take the loggers over a week to clear cut that holler, but in the end, it would be their richest haul. At the first cut of earth, a lonesome crow fled it’s stump, it rose and circled and then cried loud overhead, she was drowned out by the grinding roar of the Crawler. The road to the Point, and Tower, and onward to Long Hollow was soon no more, only a path remained.
As the lonely unheard crow passed over in disappointment, Bill spotted the refuse. Once living trees left to waste all because they were the worthless that blocked the path to the wealth. He began to push it all into the ravine. Dammed, it stopped the flow of the creek. It soon formed a pond that was turning into a lake.
Bill stopped to wipe his forehead, and then went back to work, cutting a new road down below his dam, parts of which soon where under water. As he carved away the dark Harlan County earth, creatures above and below ground began to awaken. A whole village of Coachwhips, bitter cousins of the Blacksnake, accused of mating with the Rattler when all they were doing inside that deadly lair was robbing the eggs of their venomous counterpart, were steered from a somber sleep and sent forth in every direction. It was freedom for most, but death to those that strayed into the path of Bill and the Crawler.
He went down and cut away the main road, the only artery to the Seven Hollows and beyond. As he did, the Lake at the Crossroads swelled to full capacity. If it would break, the towns of Loyall and Rio Vista would be completely whiped out. He carved the road in such a way that it would take years to repair if anyone dared cared to repair it. A band of crows circled about and just as they were ready to judge and speak with forked tongues, the silence was broken by the sound of a yellow Yamaha 250 plowing its way up the mountain. When James viewed what was before him, he killed his engine. Bill saw his cousin arrive and turned the big blade of the Crawler down into the earth. It chugged and died as gray smoke rose skyward and disappeared.
“What....what the hell has happened here?”
“Mountain improvement my man. I did this for us and our Old Kentucky Home.”
“But...the trails. How will we ever get over to Long Hollow and the Sand Caves?”
“The new road is gone. But the old path is still there. We didn’t touch it.”
“How will we ride?” James asked.
“Follow me,” his cousin replied.
Bill got off of the dozer and climbed aboard his red Honda CM 250. It revved and spit smoke. The tires spun and turned over a bit of earth. It was not much. It was enough for him. James re-started his own little machine and followed.
As a lonesome crow crossed the path of a rising moon, they rode. Around the rising lake they went and up what was left of the road to the Tower on the Point. They passed the point without stopping to admire the view of a new mountain lake behind them. They rounded the point and descended into Long Holler. They rode down paths and through grown up mining roads where only feet and dirt bikes could go. When the path disappeared, they made their own trail. The cousins rode all night through the hollow and over to the sand caves until they were free.
Before dawn on a Monday morning, out of the Black Mountain fog appeared a white Chevy four wheel drive. Inside was Bender counting, in his mind, his money. Behind was a convoy of empty logging trucks. Overhead, outlaw crows banished from the flock screamed out for vengeance. Below ground, Coachwhips and Rattles mingled in secret. Above ground, the new dam could no longer hold more.
Bender had been telling his driver, “I’ve been baiting them little hillbilly son of a bitches. I know they been messing with my dozer. Don’t worry though, they can’t figure it out. We got five more hollows to finish. That shouldn’t take more than a day or two.” His loud laughter suddenly stopped.
Before him he saw a giant wave of muddy water mixed with Black Mountain debris crashing down upon him.
He soiled himself. Waste and water rolled down his leg.
Alarm clocks sounded one after another in the valley below the Seven Hollows. As giant wave after giant wave came crashing down, a lonesome crow circled overhead and cawed down below, into nothing. –e-